"The brain does not achieve fine discrimination by pushing fine discrimination
forward in the senses and by producing a more sensitive physical apparatus.
...the brain has had to solve the problem of achieving fine discrimination
with a course apparatus. And in many ways you can say about all human problems,
whether in science or in literature, whether physical or psychological,
that they always center around the same problem: How do you refine the
detail with an apparatus which remains at bottom grainy and course?"
The devil, they say, is in the details.
The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination
I remember back to my days at the insurance company. One division was
planning to replace their primary processing engine, and I was chosen to
lead the group planning the project. We met two or three afternoons each
week for five or six months. We spent each meeting walking through the
structured development methodology's activity definitions and resource
templates, laying out detailed task lists for each phase of each subsystem's
transformation. The final product was a leveled set of resource plans with
each task estimated to at least a 40 hour granularity. We knew before we'd
even gathered system requirements, or at least we thought we knew, that
the report design tasks in the design phase for the Policyowner Services
subsystem, for instance, would take so-and-so many analyst hours, arrayed
with this many being junior, that many journeyman, and this other many
being senior level work.
We had created "thuddage!" We packaged this information into attractive
loose-leaf binders before delivering it to the senior management committee.
I remember the tension in the room as these uncharacteristically formal
documents were passed around. The tension was quickly dissipated when one
of the Senior Vice Presidents turned to the bottom line and reported that
he didn't think we should spent this much to do this project. Poof! The
six months of crawling through the muck evaporated into meaninglessness.
I could have given them as useful a number, which would have been close
enough for their purposes, by spending a few minutes on the back of a cocktail
napkin with a pencil.
I had made the common and commonly fatal mistake of confusing detail
for precision. The two are not related.
As Bronowski reminds us, the game is not won by those who manage to
make their senses more sensitive or, by analogy, by those with the most
detailed plan. Our planning challenge is more difficult and more subtle
than that. How can we get the precision we need given that much of the
precision we want is unavailable at the time we need it. How do we deal
with the unknown and the unknowable.
My early-in-my-career strategy was to create this detail as a substitute
for precision. This seemed like a reasonable way to learn more about an
undertaking, although I probably learned a lot more about myself and about
my fellows than I ever learned about my projects. Reflecting back, I must
have been crazy to believe that by getting eight people together in a room,
none of whom had ever seen the system we would build, we could get a useful
assessment of how many senior analysts we would need to have on staff in
the third quarter three years out. I must have been crazy to spend half
my nights following these sessions summarizing these speculations into
spreadsheets and rough critical path models, purporting to show roadblocks
and shortcuts. Or perhaps I was simply enthralled with my techniques and
Someone in one of my workshops this past spring noted that even though
nothing went as planned in the Normandy invasion, the planners still went
through the exercise of creating detailed plans. This might seem like an
even more useless activity than my thuddage-creating effort, but it was
not useless. The purpose was to prepare for the unpreparable, to produce
a plan that was plausible although demonstrably incorrect. The real purpose
was to learn to work together, the real skill required to succeed in the
This is a subtle point and in important one. The fact that the situation
is filled with uncertainty and unknowables is no excuse for avoiding some
detailed planning. These conditions, however, change the meaning of the
planning activity and the significance of the resulting plan. The purpose
of the planning is not, as I earlier believed, to create certainty but
to create the potential for success.
And what do I mean by "create the potential for success?" Success, as
human society has understood for centuries, has never relied upon accurate
prediction. Humans predict about as well as they fly. The potential for
success is created by a community's ability to work together with shared
intentions toward a common objective with limited, but not necessarily
limiting, resources, in a way that enhances the quality of each individual's
experience. This pattern is created in good planning experiences and never
present in the resulting plan. The real purpose of the details is not to
create "fine discrimination with a course apparatus" but to create a community
capable of roughing it.
Each project plan should have a message similar to the "Warning, objects
are closer than they appear" printed on your car's passenger-side rear-view
mirror. The plan message should read, "Warning, this IS NOT a map of how
we'll get there," because it almost never is. Holding this plan as the
final arbiter of success will guarantee failure because it chokes off most
of the possibilities for success. Where success is defined as this dream
coming true, failure is most likely because little of the potential for
success can appear in any plan.
No detailed plan allows you to avoid roughing it. Pack everything you
think you'll need and you'll still be dogged by some small or significant
overlooked detail. The plan will be most useful in getting you started,
in pointing you in some initial direction. The planning will tell you most
about your potential for success. How easily do you reach agreement? How
territorial are you? Can everyone win or must someone compromise, or be
compromised, before agreement is reached? Who is us and who is them?
The devil only lurks in the details for those who insist upon him being
there. These devilish details become angels when viewed as mediums rather
than as ends unto themselves. For those who feel the warm metal of freshly
forged leg irons slipping around your ankles as you pitch your latest strategy,
check your focus. Each of us must proceed knowing that the details of the
pitched plan are wholly inadequate and yet absolutely necessary. The future
is at "bottom grainy and course" when viewed from this distance.
One of our clients has an accountability for their project managers
to be courageous. I think this is what they must mean. Being a project
manager means knowing that the plan can't work while understanding that
the project can succeed anyway, on some terms unknowable given our "grainy
and course" planning apparatus. Those pursuing certainty with details become
wiser or dumber for their encounter with the devils there. Those pursuing
potential rough it easier.